Another day, another new forestry policy for New Brunswick
Two years ago (2012), the government of New Brunswick released a new forestry management policy for Crown land.
The 2012 plan was a compromise between those asking for more conservation / different management approaches and those who wanted more access to wood on Crown land. The annual allowable cut for softwood in the 2012 plan was left unchanged from the previous 2007-2012 strategy, and remained at 3.27 million cubic metres. The hardwood allowable cut, on the other hand, was reduced from 1.77 to 1.41 million cubic metres. The conservation forest area was reduced from 30 to 28 percent and the amount of protected natural area (the PNAs are ‘no-cut’ areas within the conservation forest) increased to eight percent.
The plan was based in part on the report of a taskforce established to review forestry practices on Crown land. The report suggested that private woodlots could supply any shortfall in hardwood supplies and also provide any increased demand for softwood supply. The report also suggested that the term ‘working forest’ be used to describe the allocated areas within crown lands, in order to emphasize the renewable aspect of this resource.
[This task force report contains links to many previous forestry reports and so is a valuable resource. I suggest downloading a copy of it and other reports before they are ‘disappeared’.]
The 2012 plan followed years of significant downsizing in the forest industry. A number of lumber mills closed and two pulp mills (Dalhousie and Miramichi) were shut down between 2005 and 2008. The main user of wood supplied from crown lands, J.D. Irving Ltd (JDI), expressed dismay at the new plan. JDI had recently closed the Deersdale and Clair mills; some 143 jobs were lost as a result. A combination of soft market conditions, power rates, and uncertainty re wood supply were cited as reasons for the closures. With the release of the 2012 crown land forestry plan, JDI said that ‘cost uncertainty’ relating to that new forestry plan would keep those mills closed.
Fast forward two years to 2014, and we find that the same government has had a change in heart. Softwood allocations from crown land are increased from 3.27 to 3.9 million cubic metres, although hardwood allocations remain unchanged. PNAs are doubled in size within the conservation forest areas, although the latter are reduced from 28% to 23% of Crown lands (and that 28% was a reduction from the 30% conservation forest pre-2012). It’s not clear yet, but it appears that the 5% reduction in conservation area will come from reduced buffering around wetlands and streams, and/or harvest from areas previously regarded as uneconomic or too difficult to harvest. What is clear, however, is that, although the document released by the government claimed that NB could now reap the benefits of silviculture practiced over recent decades, the gain in harvest is coming from reductions in conservation forest. That does not sound like a sustainable practice. Again, by sustainable, I am not talking about the natural ecosystem per se, but getting the maximum economic value out of our resource for future generations.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the new plan was the announcement by the responsible Minister that the Province had now entered into a contract with JDI such that a certain volume of wood fibre was guaranteed by the provincial government. Not only are we reducing the percentage of crown land set aside for conservation purposes, but we are guaranteeing a supply to the private sector. Getting the public sector to commit to such a guarantee has been a request by the forest industry for several years. I wonder how many other examples there are of governments guaranteeing a supply of a natural resource to the private sector. Offering up a certain acreage is one thing; agreeing to set harvest objectives is another. But guaranteeing a supply?
What happens if the supply falls short for one reason or another? Will additional conservation forest be allocated for harvest? We don’t know because the contract details have not yet been made public – another fine example of the lack of transparency in this province. I am surprised that neither the Opposition Liberal Party nor the New Democratic Party have had much to say about this contract. I assume that means they accept the concept. I don’t, and I do not think many New Brunswickers will either, but apparently we are not to be given a voice or a choice. It is perhaps not a coincidence that the Liberal Task Force on Self-Sufficiency of a few years ago recommended changes to Crown land utilization that bear similarities to those now being implemented.
In what was certainly a coordinated effort, JDI quickly announced a major upgrade to its paper mill in Saint John and expansions at its Chipman and Doaktown timber operations. The latter two locations will see approximately 95 full-time equivalents in new jobs (not counting short-term construction and renovation jobs) – that is less than those lost at Deersdale and Clair a few years ago. The pulp mill will see approx. 600 new full-time jobs, a fact that was applauded by the employees’ union.
What is not really clear is how many of those jobs are due to the turn-around in the U.S. and global economy and how many are a result of the promise of an increased wood/fibre supply. If over-harvesting is not a problem, then why does JDI require so much more Crown land, given the closures of several lumber mills and pulp mills in recent years (which surely would have freed up some wood supplies for use by JDI)? Something is wrong here.
What I see in this is a government that, in its desperation to get re-elected, is willing to make some potentially bad deals in order to get some job announcements. For some unknown reason, the current administration seems to have felt that ‘cutting spending’ would lead to some kind of magical economic turn-around. Then all would be well. Perhaps those magical beliefs are just another sad reflection of the shallow talent pool from which our political parties have drawn their current leaders. In any event, cost-cutting has not resulted in popularity, so the current administration has decided to go all-out with respect to job creation in order to be re-elected.
If you are looking for a frank review of ‘transparency’ issues relating to forestry management in this province, then I recommend this 2012 report from yet another task force – it has some clear and sobering things to say about wood management in NB. For example: “The pervasive lack of transparency in both Crown forest and private woodlot policy suggests that “opaque” best describes DNR’s and the Commission’s approach to sharing public information. Opacity leads some citizens to believe that decisions are being made by “insiders” who seek to profit from public policy discussions held behind closed doors, and it undermines citizens’ faith in civic process.” One fundamental problem is the management of Crown lands by the lessee. Management costs are subtracted from royalty payments and this can result in no net payments to the Province, or payments from the Province to the lessee. This makes oversight of management practices more difficult. Would it not be better if there was more direct involvement of DNR staff in management of Crown lands?
The report also points out that small woodlots are not, as some seem to feel, paragons of good forestry management – a substantial number of woodlots are being mismanaged. If action is not taken to improve that situation then small woodlots will not be a reliable source of wood fibre supply in the future.
These problems of ‘opacity’ are not unique to the current government; they have persisted for decades. Citizens of this province have not demanded better, and, indeed, have accepted ‘opaque’ policy development and administration in many policy areas from successive governments. The political parties are not to blame – they are, after all, just trying to give us what they think we want. And we have not made that very clear, have we?